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This is a Spoiled Bastard deconstruction. It contains spoilers. That’s the whole point. If you haven’t seen episode nine, come back when you have.
“You are the devil.”
The sound design in Breaking Bad has always been such a superb and often overlooked element to the series. But from the opening sounds in “Blood Money,” when the skateboards whizzed around the empty pool at Walt and Skyler’s place, to the fuzzed-out state Hank finds himself in when he finally connect the dots, to the rush of unmuffled voices when Hank opens the sliding glass door and those words above, spoken by Marie, put an ominous exclamation point on what Walt has become, sound asserts itself in this episode.
And never was that more ominous or true than when all the exterior sounds vanished in the closing scene, as Walt and Hank have their first mind-blowingly great confrontation, and Walt says slowly:
“If that’s true (pause), if you don’t know who I am (pause), then maybe your best course (pause) would be to tread lightly.”
Oh, we are well beyond treading lightly, people. In the parlance of the day, it … is … on.
Of course, Breaking Bad has been leading to this moment from the first episode of the first season. Walter White, milquetoast chemistry teacher about to break bad, watches a news report of a meth bust by his DEA brother-in-law. Everything that follows leads to “Blood Money.” And every episode after this one, we should assume, will be some kind of run-in between Hank trying to prove Walt is really Heisenberg and Walt trying to either kill Hank or get away.
This cannot, conceivably, end well.
We are at the point in evaluating the brilliance of Breaking Bad where sometimes the simplicity of actually watching it — the visceral thrill we get from it — gets forgotten in the analysis. So let’s go here for a second: That last scene, that last sentence, was the kind of cinematic television moment that pays off enormously. It was deliriously fun. It was goose-bump inducing, let’s-do-this!, pumped-up-kicks kind of hysteria that was like a shot of adrenaline directly into the heart.
That moment offset a number of bigger issues, of course. Chief among them is Jesse’s unrelenting guilt about the aforementioned blood money. He’s in a spiral. All the hell that the former fun-loving, completely clueless Cap’N Cook didn’t know was coming has now left him nearly comatose. He’s killed a man, he’s witnessed the murder of a child (and the near death of another). He’s had friends die. He’s had the love of his recovering life (gone wrong) die. Jesse has, in short, suffered all the soul-crushing, life-sucking depression that Walt seems to dance over. And as we watch Jesse’s complete inability to deal with the riches that have come his way, as we watch him and know that he’d give anything to wish it all away, it’s clear that series creator Vince Gilligan is using him as the anti-Walt.
You know Walt. He’s the man who broke bad for a defensible but ill-advised reason — to leave something to his family — after cancer looked to be cutting his squandered, unlucky life short. Who is that Walt? He’s the one who was Mr. Chips and is now beyond Scarface, the man who can rationalize anything at this point — an empire created at all costs and a desire to retire, finally, and live the good life.
That Walt — he’s the one who must pay. And if this first episode of eight remaining taught us anything, it’s that there’s a hell, a fury, a karmic payback coming. But what we don’t know — and one notion I addressed in a previous column about who will live or die in Breaking Bad — is whether Walt will suffer as the audience wants him to. If they want him to. (So much for turning him into Scarface — much of the audience seems immune to his evil ways and is still rooting for him.) This first episode only confirms that Hank knows it’s Walt (and how much time could we spend talking about how wonderful Dean Norris was, at sea with the haunting, awful, dizzying truth of it all).
This first episode hints at a season-long (or half-season-long) arc of cat and mouse in an open field. But I doubt it’s going to be that easy to bring down Walt. If the flash-forward is intended to give us some kind of hint, I would say that someone burned down their world to get him and came up empty. Walt still stands, with his ricin, awaiting this final confrontation.
Was it Hank? Was it Jesse or Skyler or a rival drug kingpin? The end note is unwritten, but the first episode seems decidedly pro-Walt if you’re trying to handicap who might be ahead in this battle. We, as viewers, always knew it wouldn’t be easy. I doubt that it will also be obvious, which is why I’m ruling out Hank as the one who slays the dragon. It may take another seven episodes, or maybe just six — and one to marinate in the fallout. We’ll find out for sure, yet we know nothing after this first episode. Except that Breaking Bad is as excellent as always.
First glimpses — that’s all we got in this otherwise superbly powerful, brilliantly executed return to the small screen. We don’t know Skyler’s motivations. We don’t know if Jesse will stay in this catatonic state of regret. We don’t know if Hank has the ability to bring down the monster he now sees in plain sight (under his nose). We don’t know, in fact, if Walt is on the defensive or on the offensive.
All we know — and we need to be careful not to over-think it — is that we’re at the beginning of the end. And the first glimpse was just that. Magnificent, but just a glimpse. And next Sunday can’t come soon enough.
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